What Stephen Cox learned about fantasy from Mary Renault

Unlikely Influences is a series of blog posts, running every second week, about how writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.

This week’s installment is by Stephen Cox.

Mary Renault.jpg
Mary Renault. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

What I learned about fantasy from Mary Renault

by Stephen Cox

When people ask me for my great fantasy influences, I often mention Mary Renault.  If they’ve heard of her, and many haven’t, they say with disapproval, “she wasn’t a fantasy writer.”   I think anyone who restricts their influences to genre writers is – with the greatest of respect – a dumb cluck.  If you want to know how to put a short story together, look at Saki, or Wodehouse, or O Henry or de Maupassant. Then add dragons or lasers.
Mary Renault wrote historical novels with strong characters and compelling plots.  She made you smell the scent coming off the Aegean Sea, and immersed you totally in her world.  Her characters appear to live and think like people of a pre-industrial Hellene culture, not High School jocks or pupils at a fashionable English girls’ boarding school transported back in time.  The combination of character, plot and immersion in the world are for me the requirements for compelling fantasy.  And because the people are of their time, you can never be quite sure if the gods are intervening or there is magic afoot, or not.  Certainly you cannot read these books and think you are in the modern world.
I remember opening The King Must Die, which retells the myth of Theseus in a mostly realistic way.  The tributes to the Minotaur are captives of both sexes taken to Crete to compete leaping trained bulls – a dangerous rite for the benefit of a decadent elite.  It’s a compelling tale of destiny, the price of leadership, and a struggle between two cultures.  I struggle to think of the peril and the camaraderie and the setting being done as well in any epic fantasy.  We absorb totally Theseus’ mindset – that the leader may have to die for his people, whether King or elected leader of fourteen bull-leapers.
Of all her novels, it’s the only one I remember with a rigidly heterosexual narrator, and Theseus tolerates being hit on by his warriors, and accepts male-male and female-female relationships among the tributes, as perfectly normal.  Before #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Renault wrote about pre-Christian sexuality, where the concepts of gay and straight did not exist; indeed, she wrote the earlier books while male-male relationships were illegal in England.  (Bizarrely she and her life partner found liberal acceptance in South Africa.)
Then I found The Persian Boy, which blew my head off.  Bagoas, a Persian eunuch, falls in love with Alexander the Great, and wins him.  All ends tragically because Alexander dies, having conquered most of the known world.  This is historical fiction at its best, portraying a gripping world, a clash of cultures, and real relationships together.  For me, this book really opened the possibility of relationships between men being loyal and beautiful and passionate and committed.  It also shows, as several books do, that an arty or camp man can be brave and noble and true.  Writing this I realise how some of Renault’s characters are bedrock for some of mine… and how some of her lessons still need to be learned, including in the gay community.
Last of the Wine, her first historical novel, is the third of the must-reads and shows the crucial war between Athens and Sparta.  Apart from the extraordinary central male-male relationship, it brings history alive and explores real issues around loyalty, duty, and the best way to run the state.  As I found looking at the period, nascent ideas about democracy and elitism were being formed, in a small slave-owning state, a naval empire, which oppressed its women.
I’m not starry eyed about Renault.  I suspect sometimes she preferred writing about gay men to some heterosexual women – mothers can get it rough.  Although she studied the periods rigorously, she goes along with Rupert Graves’ theories about the ancient matriarchal religion which most scholars dispute.  I think she was far too kind about Socrates and Plato, who were elitists, in bed with some nasty reactionary sorts, under the guise of being high minded purists.  She also may be a bit too much of a fangirl about Alexander, an aggressive warmongering drunk.  (She says time and again, judge them by their own time.)
Her earlier, less remarkable, non-historical books dated badly.  The Friendly Young Ladies describes a lesbian relationship and sells out at the end.  “Make them turn straight at the end or we can’t sell it.”  The Charioteers has a good gay, bad gay aesthetic – don’t be camp darlings – with a disappointing ending.  And she never liked the idea of sexual identity, she mocked the Well of Loneliness (as many do) but ended up rather critical of the liberation movements which brought social and political change.  Which brought her ideas out of the books and into the real world, and helped the gay men who loved her books.
I’d read The King Must Die and its sequel, the Bull from the SeaThe Persian Boy has a prequel (Alexander grows up) and a sequel (Bagoas after Alexander’s death.)  Last of the Wine is a must, and the Mask of Apollo has a great narrator, a touring actor, although she’s more interested in the political machinations of Syracuse than I was. 
Maybe they are old fashioned in some ways, but if I write an epic fantasy, I would aspire to make it that good.
 Stephen Cox is a novelist and short story writer living in London.  He tweets @stephenwhq.